THAT SHOBHAA DE SHOW
On January 7, Shobhaa De turned 70, celebrating it by releasing a new book with a self-consciously ‘irreverent’ title: Seventy... and to Hell with It! Most famous as a racy chronicler of the (imaginary) love lives of the rich and famous—India’s Jackie Collins, though she has admitted to despising the sobriquet—De is also a prolific columnist, offering opinions several times a week in several newspapers. She is a public figure, a voice with considerable reach, even influence. “One tweet from you shakes up Parliament!” she quotes an enthusiastic presenter at an awards show saying by way of introduction.
And when an industrialist friend introduces De to Narendra Modi, she quotes him thus: “Who doesn’t know her? For years and years I have been at the receiving end of her criticism!”
Nearly everyone De quotes speaks about her in exclamations, in declarations, mostly, of awe at her daring. At the launch for this book, actor Kangana Ranaut gushed that De was the “original wild child”, a standard bearer for women who say what they think and live without an apology.
Her indisputably silly novels are pioneering—unembarrassed Indian genre fiction written in Hinglish, an urban Indian argot that she can lay claim to having pioneered. Others— G.V. Desani, for instance, and later Salman Rushdie—have invented an Indian English, dizzyingly fluent, musical, crowded with references and sounds. But their language is literary, while
De’s is the language as spoken—ugly, perhaps, but recognisable, relatable, democratic. She deserves credit for shaping a certain kind of Hinglish— gossipy and slangy. It was a distinctive voice she hit upon while editing magazines in the 1970s—Stardust and Society.
De is a self-made woman from a self-avowedly stolid, middle class Maharashtrian background. Her striking looks gave her a break as a model; everything after that has been a product of her drive and smarts. It’s a remarkable life. And De has told some of the stories from it in her 1998 memoir, Selective Memory, including the one about how she came to interview Simranjit Singh Mann, then accused of being party to the conspiracy to assassinate Indira Gandhi, for Celebrity, without quite knowing who he was and finding herself accused of sedition.
For all De’s apparent willingness to publish first and ask questions later, she has throughout her career maintained scrupulous silences, revealed little of herself. Seventy... is no different, bloated with general advice and self-glorifying anecdotes, but scanty on revelation. De is not one to dwell, to wallow, as she might put it, and so the book takes on a rather brisk tone, holding complexity at bay with a glittering rictus grin. She may appear overwhelmed, in literal danger, but she will carry on. She demands freedom for herself. It is this rather than any particular political ideology that has got her into trouble with the likes of the Shiv Sena. De will simply not be told; it’s this bolshiness, this stubborn resistance to a world of mansplainers that makes De so oddly captivating.
For all the freedom she insists on having to say what she wants, and for all that she has said in the outlets that pay her to say what it is she wants, she, frankly, has little of value to say. Much of Seventy... is shallow and, strangely, for such a strenuous ‘non-conformist’, conventional. How should women—when a conversation about sexual mores and insidious male harassment is taking place the world over—read passages on marriage titled “Dulhanji, adjust karo”? Or when she admits her “double standard” that while she believes in a “woman’s right to dress as she pleases”, she also believes that by wearing short and tight clothing a woman courts trouble? Another double standard is her pretence that she is an outsider, watching the antics of the beautiful and the damned, while in reality being a bonafide south Mumbai grande dame. It’s a pity that De resorts in Seventy... to ‘been there, done that’ world weariness. “What the hell is ‘truth’,” she writes. “Why point fingers at ‘sold out’ journos? Idealism in this business is about as useful as a fish that flies.” But if you can’t say what you believe, what you think, at 70, then when can you? When are poses no longer substitutes for ideals?
De has maintained scrupulous silences, revealed little of herself